Dear Future College Students
In this open letter to the Class of 2022, ACTA's former program officer for curricular reform shares his thoughts and recommendations for choosing a school and pursuing a meaningful education.
Freedom of Speech
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is dedicated to defending "individual rights at America's colleges and univeristies." These rights include "freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience." FIRE publishes a yearly "Spotlight on Speech Codes," which publicizes speech restrictions at hundreds of institutions of higher education. This year, ACTA is partnering with FIRE to publicize the danger of restrictive speech codes on college campuses. For every school evaluated by FIRE, you will find FIRE's "Spotlight" ranking alongside its What Will They Learn?™ grade.
A "Green Light" indicates that a school's policies do not seriously imperil free speech. A "Yellow Light" indicates a school maintains policies that restrict a limited amount of protected expression or could too easily be used to restrict protected expression. Finally, a "Red Light" indicates that a school has at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.
The What Will They Learn?™ project is driven by ACTA's deep commitment to maintaining academic excellence in higher education. But we know that academic excellence is about more than taking a particular set of classes. It also requires that students be able to speak their minds freely and express themselves without fear of censorship. A liberal education is one that liberates the mind. Restrictive speech codes are antithetical to this freedom. That is why FIRE's work is of a piece with What Will They Learn?™, and why we are proud to be working with them this year.
Heterodox Academy is a group of over 1,200 politically diverse professors and Ph.D. graduate students committed to “enhancing viewpoint diversity and the conditions that encourage free inquiry” in American higher education.
Heterodox Academy publishes a “Guide to Colleges,” which rates America’s top 150 universities and top 50 liberal arts schools based on their viewpoint diversity. Scores in the “Guide to Colleges” range from 0 to 100. Schools with higher scores are more likely to welcome “intellectual diversity and dissent.” A score of 50 means that based on the available information, Heterodox Academy cannot determine which way the school's intellectual diversity climate is likely to lean. The "Guide to Colleges" is perpetually updated with new stories and data pertaining to students, faculty, and administration to best determine the current degree of free inquiry and expression on campus.
For selected institutions, you will find their "Guide to Colleges" rating alongside their corresponding What Will They Learn?™ grade.
ACTA is committed to the idea that the free exchange of ideas be an untrammeled critical component of higher education. We are proud to partner with Heterodox Academy in order to promote and protect academic freedom on college campuses.
Oases of Excellence
The Oases of Excellence is a comprehensive list of over 50 programs at institutions across the country that promote the study of American history, Western civilization, political theory, economics, capitalism, leadership, and the Great Books. Some of these programs are housed within university departments, others may not have a formal affiliation with their institutions, but all share a commitment to educating students for informed citizenship in a free society.
John R. Wilson, a member of ACTA's Decade Society, says that "The oases form a network of programs that share ideas, resources, and activities between schools, enriching the intellectual life of college students. They are sanctuaries of free inquiry that provide a unique opportunity to explore political theory, free market economics, and western civilization's contributions to contemporary values." For each program on the list, you will find a brief description of its mission, its leaders, and some of its activities. You will also find a link to the program's website. We encourage you to visit these sites to learn more about how these outstanding programs together strive to promote academic rigor, intellectual diversity, and engaged citizenship on America's college campuses.
The College Navigator
The National Center for Education Statistics' (NCES) College Navigator is an invaluable resource for those who want accurate, comprehensive data about America's colleges and universities. It contains information on admissions, tuition, enrollment, and graduation rates. It will tell you what programs are offered at each school and how many students graduate from them each year. College Navigator's data is drawn from the Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).
Good data is crucial to bringing more accountability to America's colleges and universities. What Will They Learn?™provides parents and students with key information about what subjects each college requires as essential for all students, regardless of major. College Navigator allows parents and students to weigh that information along with other data in order to reach an informed decision in the college selection process.
Alongside each school's What Will They Learn?™ grade, you will find the school's enrollment, tuition, and graduation rate, drawn from IPEDS data, so you can see these key indicators all together.
Since most undergraduate programs are designed to be completed in four years, ACTA publishes schools' four-year graduation rates. The four-year graduation rate indicates whether an institution is providing first-time, full-time students with a quality education in a reasonable timeframe. Six-year graduation rates are also available on College Navigator.
PayScale College Salary Report
PayScale's College Salary Report provides data on the average earnings of graduates from over 1,000 American colleges and universities. It provides information on starting salaries, mid-career salaries, and how graduates feel about their own jobs. Numbers can also be broken down by major and school "type."
ACTA believes that higher education's highest priority must be to prepare graduates for the challenges of both career and community. That, after all, is the rationale behind What Will They Learn?™. For good and valid reasons, the overwhelming majority of college freshmen seek higher education with the purpose of gaining a good job. PayScale is a resource that provides parents and students with the information they need concerning the job placement record of schools they are considering and to help make a more informed choice.
National Student Loan Data System
The National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) allows students and parents to search for data on student loan default rates. Numbers can be broken down by state and institution type.
Defaults are more common than you may think—the three-year default rate on federal student loans stands at 14.7%. Shockingly, some institutions have a loan default rate higher than their graduation rate! This data is important. Students qualify very easily for federal loans, yet these loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Students and their familites need to weigh carefully what level of debt they can reasonably sustain, and whether graduates from the schools they are considering have been successful in repaying their federal loans. With federal student loan debt now over $1 trillion, this is vital information.
As economist Andrew Gillen writes in his groundbreaking report on student loan defaults, "Tracking and reporting loan default rates are a crucial means of monitoring how well higher education dollars are spent." This holds true both for the lawmakers who have responsibliity for the taxpayer dollars that go into federal student financial assistance and for students who take up the opportunity provided by federal student loans.